Monday, July 23, 2007

Maintenance

Every decade or so, at least in Amerloque's experience, summertime temperatures in France take a dive. Unseasonable winds cause the clouds to scud rapidly across the skies and sometimes the same clouds deliver masses of unwanted rains in the wrong place at the wrong time. Of course, these make excellent excuses for remaining indoors a bit more than usual, doing things that must inevitably be done.


Old farmhouses - and their contents - require maintenance, for example. A traditional wood framed house, whether in Normandy or Alsace, needs to be carefully inspected every summer. Sometimes the torchis filling between the vertical timbers needs to be reworked and resealed with a layer of natural limestone-based plaster. Anti-termite and other anti-borer treatments must be applied to most timbers at regular intervals, too. Slate roofing tiles that have moved or shattered are to be replaced. Finally, the fireplace chimney needs to be swept - if for no other reason than to be in compliance with the typical French homeowner's insurance policy. Amerloque is content with leaving the roofs and chimneys to the professionals, while family members contribute to redoing the walls and applying various products in a safe, environmental fashion. In many cases, bad weather turns out to be an incitement to good maintenance - as long as the weather is not too bad, and as long as mealtimes are not given short shrift !


Interested as he is in food and cooking (ah ! the quality of life in France !), Amerloque a long time ago decided that if one is to be serious about cooking, one must be equally serious about the tools used. A good stove, as well as high-quality pots and pans and proper lighting, makes cooking a pleasure rather than a chore. Cookbooks and recipes must be chosen carefully, too. Yet it has been Amerloque's experience that amateur chefs – and Amerloque himself is no more than an amateur, make no mistake about it ! - frequently overlook one vitally necessary tool: cutlery - including the knives used in the kitchen.

In the Anglo-Saxon world he grew up in, there were two inescapably famous knifemaking centers in Europe: Sheffield and Solingen. Sheffield, in England, was already famed for the production of knives in the Middle Ages. It was even mentioned by Geoffrey Chaucer in his Canterbury Tales. By 1600 it had become the main centre of cutlery production in England. In Amerloque's youth, a good kitchen knife necessarily came from Sheffield. Sheffield's main competitor was always portrayed as being the German city of Solingen, where to this day something like 90% of German cutlery is produced. The town's fame dates from medieval times, too. During the second half of the 17th century, a group of swordsmiths from Solingen did break their guild oaths and take their sword-making secrets to County Durham in England, thus contributing to the rivalry between the two countries.


After coming to France, Amerloque continued to use Sheffield and Solingen blades in the kitchen, although his table coutellerie was French and, in some cases, American, since he had quite some of the family cutlery sent over bit by bit. As he learned about the realities of French life and became more a part of it, he discovered that a city named Thiers, in the massif central, has for over 500 years been the capital of French cutlery manufacture, with over one hundred companies producing fully over two thirds of French cutlery. He also found that the French town of Laguiole was well known for knives. So Amerloque motored down to Thiers one fine summer day during the 1970s and spent a week or so touring the town and the shops. He purchased several robust kitchen knives, which stood him in good stead for years and years. Generally stainless steel (inox), dishwasher safe, and fairly well-balanced, French kitchen knives from Thiers are readily available, at all prices, for individuals as well as for professional chefs.

As with automobile and small arms enthusiasts, people involved in the knife world tend to have strong opinions. After visiting Japan over a decade ago, Amerloque realized just why one of his acquaintances had been swearing (both literally and figuratively) by Japanese kitchen knives for years and years. In Kyoto, Amerloque was given the opportunity to try out several traditional knives, as well as several series of mass-produced Japanese knives, and was very, very impressed. As a matter of fact, he became a convert.

Apparently today’s Japanese knives are fashioned using techniques that were originally developed for making katana, traditional samurai swords. The change to knife-crafting began in the mid-nineteenth century, and, when after World War II General Douglas MacArthur banned Japanese sword-making nationwide, numbers of highly skilled craftsmen turned their skills and attention to kitchen knives. Dedicated sword craftsmen began studying the ambitious creations of creative chefs. Japanese knives soon attained universal renown - the "unforgettable sharpness" of the katana is still the identifying mark of the Japanese knife and distinguishes the inimitable Japanese blade from its Sheffield, Solingen, and Thiers counterparts.

Over the years Amerloque has found that Japanese blades simply are sharper and are able to cut thinner slices of various meats, fowl, vegetables and fruits. However, what the Japanese call kirenaga, the "duration of sharpness" factor, must invariably be factored in when dealing with Japanese knives: they do not hold their sharpness as long as might be desired. Although today's knives – especially chef's cutlery - are forged with methods similar to those used by traditional sword craftsmen, using "white steel" (shiro-ko) and "blue steel"(ao-ko), they still must be re-sharpened more frequently than Western blades.

Yes – there's the rub: Japanese knives are high maintenance tools. They are definitely not dishwasher safe – they require careful had washing and hand drying, to avoid rust (depending on the steel "sandwich", of course) and possible putrescence in the wooden handles. The traditional sharpening process is no mundane affair, either: three different sharpening stones are used: it took Amerloque quite a bit of practice to get the hang of it. Furthermore, he has found that one can expect to sharpen a Japanese knife … every one or two days when used intensively in a home cooking environment and that the necessarily fastidious, frequent sharpening takes up a lot of time.


Genuine traditional Japanese knives can be quite expensive, too. One can easily pay well over €250 (250 euros - say US$325/350) for one good santoku, an all-purpose chef's knife used for slicing, dicing and mincing meats and vegetables. Nevertheless, if one is serious about cooking, one can do worse than to invest in a top flight santoku. With proper care it will last a lifetime, although tying up that much capital in a knife might not be everyone's cup of tea - unless one is involved in cooking professionally, of course.

Amerloque decided some time ago that he would use both Western and Japanese blades in the kitchen, the latter more sparingly than the former. He has the normal range of relatively easy maintenance French kitchen knives – a Sabatier does the job quite nicely – and a cleaver from Solingen. (By the way, if one is interested in personally choosing French knives - and other serious kitchen utensils - nothing can beat a visit to La Bovida at 36 rue Montmartre, 75001 Paris. )

Given the maintenance required, the Japanese contingent of knives is reserved for more difficult tasks and special occasions: cutting very, very thin slices of beef for barbecued-beef sandwiches, for example, and perfect slices of turkey on Thanksgiving, goose at Christmas, and gigot d'agneau at Easter. They are also peerless for cutting virtually almost transparent slices of tomato and cucumber for salads. Finally, they come into play when the Amerloque family gathers round the hand operated meat mincer for one of its semiannual sausagemaking sessions (La Bovida sells sausage skins, too.).

Amerloque uses knives made by Hiromoto, who has been producing professional quality knives for some decades in Seki City, Japan. Seki City, in Gifu Prefecture, is today considered the home of modern Japanese kitchen cutlery, where state-of-the-art manufacturing and technology has updated ancient forging skills to produce a world class series of stainless and laminated steel kitchen knives famed throughout the world. Hiromoto's workmanlike knives (santoku, deba, and yanagi) are forged from high carbon steel, chromium and tungsten. They are advertised as being " easy to sharpen … durable … perfectly balanced … can hold a razor sharp edge". Amerloque has found this to be true and can recommend Hiromoto unreservedly. He finds them particularly well balanced and the price is right. He keeps a second, more upmarket Hiromoto santoku for truly special occasions.


So the currently miserable summer weather makes it a good time to do maintenance in the kitchen, too: cleaning and sharpening knives is a profitable way to spend one or more rainy afternoons … before finishing the day by curling up in front of a warm fire in the evening.

Amerloque would prefer normal summer weather, of course. However, one can't have everything !



L'Amerloque



Text © Copyright 2007 by L'Amerloque
Images © Copyrights reserved to copyright holders including Amerloque

12 Comments:

Blogger MATTHEW ROSE said...

My favorite knives, although I don't own any, are the super sharp ceramic knives. I have a nice collection of knives, though. I like taking the biggest one to cut small pieces of fruit. Makes me feel like I work in a Harry Potter novel doing something creative.

Cheers,

Matthew

4:52 PM  
Blogger L'Amerloque said...

Hi Matthew Rose !

/*/ ...ceramic knives ... /*/

Apparently the super sharp ceramic knives require more care than Japanese knives. (grin) Amerloque was told this when he asked his opinionated acquaintance ... (wide grin)

Amerloque hopes that perhaps the professional cooks will devote a bit of space on their blogs to their selection of knives ...

Thanks for stopping by !

Best,
L'Amerloque

11:56 PM  
Anonymous Ms. Glaze said...

Great post! I used to think Wusthof were the best until I had to cook with them for fourteen hours a day. They caused me serious carpal tunnel due to their heaviness and inability to stay sharp. Sometimes I would get them professionally sharpened and two days later they were dull again.

I prefer Japanese blades %100. They are excellent for precision cuts and heavy duty usage. I find they stay sharper longer then the ol' German warhorses.

I have two Global knives that were given to me. One for vegetables that looks like a miniature cleaver and one 24cm blade for everything else. The vegetable blade is great because you can rock it while chopping instead of having to pick the knife up over and over. This increases speed and minimizes wrist injury.

I love French cuisine, but not French knives. They're a little clunky!

3:57 PM  
Blogger L'Amerloque said...

Hello Ms Glaze !

/*/ Great post! I used to think Wusthof were the best .../... /*/

Amerloque thanks Ms Glaze for the headsup ! (wide smile)

/*/Sometimes I would get them professionally sharpened and two days later they were dull again./*/

A drag. The Japanese blades need frequent resharpening, too, alas - at least in Amerloque's experience ...

/*/ I find they stay sharper longer then the ol' German warhorses. /*/

Mein Gott ! What in the world was Ms Glaze cutting ... or was she chopping thru bones and gristle ?!

/*/I love French cuisine, but not French knives. They're a little clunky!/*/

(wide grin) Amerloque is looking forward to a post about cutlery by Ms Glaze on her blog. None of the "cooking" blogs seem to address this issue in any depth ...

In California, at least according to some of Amerloque's acquaintances, a "Kasumi" knife is apparently the summum. Has Ms Glaze tried one, and is it as good as they say ?!

Many thanks for stopping by !

Best,
L'Amerloque

5:29 AM  
Anonymous bluevicar said...

As a world traveler these days without a knife to my name, I can't help but wonder just how many knives Amerloque has stashed in his kitchen? Some French, some German, some Japanese, some American...whew! It must be dangerous to reach into a drawer for fear of slicing off a digit.

"Paper thin tomatoes and cucumbers"...it IS nice to have the proper tool to do the job, isn't it? I look forward to getting settled into our kitchen and making another run at cooking meals. This gave me a good vicariousexperience!

Meilleurs voeux!!

8:51 PM  
Blogger L'Amerloque said...

Hello bluevicar !

/*/ .../... must be dangerous to reach into a drawer for fear of slicing off a digit. .../... /*/

When the kids were small, it was always a good opportunity for a quick lesson on "kitchen safety". (grin)

/*/I look forward to getting settled into our kitchen and making another run at cooking meals. This gave me a good vicarious experience!/*/

... where, Amerloque trusts, bluevicar will be simmering nice French dishes at all hours ... (wide grin)

Thanks for visiting !

Best,
L'Amerloque

12:58 AM  
Blogger Mary Ellen said...

Hello l'amerloque!

Kitchen cutlery...a great topic. My husband and I love to cook and each have our own specialties. However, since I am a vegetarian, I don't have to go through the bother of cutting through meat and bones (yuck!). My husband prepares any meat that is eaten by the carnivores in my family. I stick to the chopping and cutting of vegetables. Of course, my choice of cutlery is Chicago Cutlery. The knives stay sharp, aren't too heavy and have a great feel while holding them. The grip seems to be just right.

Like you, I think that it's important to have the right tools and the proper and best possible equipment in the kitchen. It makes cooking so much more relaxing and enjoyable.

My son is just learning to cook and managed to somehow break a piece off of my Cuisinart food processor while grating the cheese for a Quiche he was making. Don't ask me how he did it...but at least I only had to order a new piece which arrived in the mail three days later. I think for now, I'll keep him away from the knives.

Great post, and I love the picture on the bottom. Beautiful sky.

8:37 PM  
Blogger L'Amerloque said...

Hello Mary Ellen !

/*/ ... I don't have to go through the bother of cutting through meat and bones (yuck!)./*/

(grin) The Amerloque family makes sausages twice a year, with a hand grinder, and that is yucky indeed. (wider grin) At the end of each session, one is tempted to become a vegetarian ... that's before eating the sausage, of course (grin)

/*/ Of course, my choice of cutlery is Chicago Cutlery. The knives stay sharp, aren't too heavy and have a great feel while holding them. The grip seems to be just right./*/

Thanks for the info ! Amerloque isn't familiar at all with CC ... from the website, it appears they offer quite a range, with a lifetime guarantee ! Can't say any fairer than that !

/*/ .../... but at least I only had to order a new piece which arrived in the mail three days later. .../.../*/

Great customer service !Wow!


/*/ .../... I think for now, I'll keep him away from the knives. .../... /*/

(wide grin)

Thanks for stopping by !

Best,
L'Amerloque

9:28 AM  
Blogger Mary Ellen said...

Hello again!

Ahhh...I also have one of the old hand crank sausage grinders. It was handed down to me by my mother in law.

The most difficult thing about being a vegetarian for me is the fact that it wasn't the taste of the meat that kept me from eating it. Also, my husband and son are not vegetarians and when I cook up that sausage on a grill or smell those ribs that are being smoked...my mouth waters.

My husband has been wanting to make home made sausage, however, we have an amazing Italian deli nearby that has incredible sausage (according to my husband). You can see them grinding it and putting it in the casings through the window, so we know it's fresh! I prefer not to look, however. It's like a horror film to me!

9:44 AM  
Anonymous denise said...

Last Christmas, my sister gave me this serrated knife she uses for girl scout camping trips. She swears by it. It cuts through meat and bones like butter, yet can slice a tomato razor thin. Best of all it stays sharp and never needs sharpening. She as even used them to cut tree branches to make camp fires. I have the knife but there is no brand name on the knife blade or handle. As I threw away the box, I will ask her the brand name of this evil looking knife.

For cooking, there is nothing like Le Creuset. Cast iron is a wonderful distributor of heat. It requires very low cooking temperatures. The enameling of Le Creuset is great because nothing sticks to it. If it does, just soak for 10 minutes and it comes off.

You can't beat a chicken tagine slow cooked for hours in my mom's 60 year old cast iron pan :-)

3:56 PM  
Blogger Linda said...

Do you think screwtops matter any more? I really don't taste a difference and I think it protect the wine just as well.

11:06 PM  
Blogger L'Amerloque said...

(This comment has been crossposted into "Selections".)

Hi Linda !

/*/ Do you think screwtops matter any more? I really don't taste a difference and I think it protect the wine just as well. /*/

Insofar as Amerloque is concerned, it seems to be very much an affair of "De gustibus non est disputandum" - there's no accounting for taste. (smile)

Yet using a cork is part and parcel of the winemaking tradition and, in Amerloque's view, should be respected as such. For example, he certainly wouldn't pay many dollars for any wine with a screw top, no matter the producer or the vintage.

He has noted that many more white wines then red seem to be appearing with screw tops. Finally … if one decants and serves the wine in a carafe … who's to know ? (grin) …

There was an article about this in the International Herald Tribune a while back. IT looks like that one of the keywords is 'reduction".

http://www.iht.com/articles/2007/09/26/arts/trwin

4:56 AM  

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